There once was a girl from Connecticut… That’s how I started the very first poem I wrote for Professor Ready’s Poetry Course when I was an undergraduate at Drew University. I only took the class because I had to- it was a requirement for my minor. Knowing nothing about poetry and having no talent, I was not looking forward to the semester.
With his gentle manner and always positive feedback, Professor Ready became my favorite- an added bonus to an otherwise difficult class, you might say. Not so much. It was a conundrum. I wanted to impress him. But with poems like the one mentioned above, there was no hope for me.
I muddled through his class, him leaving a much bigger impression on me than I did on him, graduated with decent grades and off I went into the world. Although he might deny it, I’m sure he forgot all about me and went on to focus on students with… you know, talent.
Redemption found me twenty-one years after graduation when I signed a two-book deal with a major publishing house and my first novel was named an IndieNext pick.
Wanting to express my gratitude for his support and encouragement so many years before, I inscribed a thank you note in the first copy of NIGHT BLINDNESS my publisher sent me, and mailed it to him, hoping he’d remember my name, but not the unrhyming, no rhythmed slop I turned into him week after week in the early ‘90s. Let me tell you, three-hundred pages of storytelling was like the bunny slope compared to the double black diamond killer trails with one ski and no poles of composing poetry.
A month later, I received an astonishingly lovely email from him. My publicist farms out my books to well-known novelists in hopes of getting endorsements. Talents such as Kristin Harmel and Sophie Littlefield have written beautiful blurbs. But, Professor Ready’s validation eclipsed all the other praise I’ve received.
Finally I felt like perhaps he’d forgiven me my trespass of being a terrible poet. And maybe he wasn’t just being nice, but he really did think highly of NIGHT BLINDNESS. Whatever the truth, a few months after that email, he invited me to be an instructor at a graduate-level writing workshop he created, organizes and hosts every summer called Sentences. Of course I said yes. It didn’t matter my duties, I just knew I’d love to come back to my alma mater and teach.
Uh, perhaps I should have given this a little more thought. When he sent the schedule indicating I’d be lecturing, reading, running workshops and consulting with up-and-coming novelists on their manuscripts, I realized this was the big leagues with the big dogs and perhaps my place was still on the porch with the whimpering, drooling puppies. I don’t know why I was so surprised. Drew is an acclaimed university and Professor Ready is the best of the best. No duh he’d put together a revered and coveted workshop.
Crap! Now I was going to have to pretend I know what I’m doing. Going back to my roots, I pulled out my eighth-grade English teacher’s rules of writing, and decided I could lecture and run a workshop about the necessity of breaking grammar rules to write good fiction.
Still yearning approval, I prepared a detailed outline. It was a thing of beauty- five pages of explicit notes ensuring I’d have more than enough material to keep twenty-five graduate students mesmerized. Wanting to show off a little, I sent it to Professor Ready.
Have you ever heard the live version of Harry Chapin’s 30,000 Pounds of Bananas? He tells a story while he’s performing about the trouble he had ending the song. He struggled until he came up with what he thought was a brilliant conclusion which he sang to his bandmates. They listened in stunned silence and finally one of them said, “Harry, that sucks.”
Do you see where I’m going here? Well, Professor Ready is much kinder than Harry Chapin’s guitarist, but you get the idea. With just a few weeks before the conference, I was thoroughly and completely screwed. Apparently there would be no place for me on his wall of favorite students. I know he must have one… in the basement… somewhere.
With a little help, I came up with a plan. I’d lecture about writing with our devils- protagonists’ struggles with moral transgressions. Those are awfully big words, certainly not ones in my every-day lexicon. But, I could do this. First- I’d look up “transgressions”, then I’d reread my favorite books and try to pin morally unacceptable acts on the characters.
I spent weeks reading and taking notes on every bad thing my literary friends ever did. I once again made an outline of what I’d lecture about, and the craft I’d lead, assuming Professor Ready wanted the students do a writing exercise rather than build a birdhouse out of popsicle sticks. That one, I would have been all over.
So, this is how my week went: On Sunday, when Professor Ready checked in to see if I was at the hotel yet, I responded I’d be right there… in three hours. Uh, I might have forgotten to take summertime traffic into consideration. Oops.
Monday morning I put on a dress that Kurt swore made me look smart and a pair of high heels that he warned would make me look dead after I fell down in them and broke my neck. I got to Drew twenty minutes early and found a seat with some other instructors. Turns out they were they students, and not the twenty-something hipsters I was expecting. Nope, these were seriously brilliant PhD candidates. Many of them were currently defending their dissertations, AKA completed manuscripts. Um, five minutes into it, I felt like they should be the ones teaching.
I confessed to Professor Ready that I was terrified, so he’d know I was nervous and didn’t have some terrible disease that caused profuse sweating in air-conditioned buildings. He assured me I’d be fine and caught me when I wiped out in my size nine death traps. His introduction made me sound a lot more impressive than I am which then, of course, caused me to sweat even more and maybe hyperventilate a little. I took three measured steps to the podium, admitted Kurt was right, took off my shoes and stood barefoot gazing out at twenty-five expectant faces.
Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. What was I going to say? What was my lecture about? Transmissions? No, not cars. Transformers? Eh, not kids’ toys. Transponders? Nope- don’t know what those are. Transgressions! Yes! Crap- what about them…
I asked the class to give some examples of characters’ transgressions from their favorite books. At first no one spoke, then one shy man with glasses raised his hand and talked about Huck Finn. Someone else offered up the folks from A Christmas Story. Several people talked about books I haven’t read yet, and magically it clicked. I didn’t reference my notes at all. We discussed why people commit transgressions, how they’re important in fiction writing and their place in moving the story forward.
Suddenly, Professor Ready stood up and took a few steps toward me. Oh no. He’s coming to help me. I’m terrible. They hate me. But, instead, he said we were at the end of the ninety minutes and we needed to wrap it up to stay on schedule. What? I’d been talking for an hour and a half? And no one nodded off or sneaked out a window? Huge score!
After a coffee break (an eloquent way of saying I needed to pee), I went off to run a workshop with half the students. I patted my bag just to make sure I had some Elmer’s glue and scissors, in case the craft I had planned didn’t go over well. Oh wait, I didn’t plan anything.
Not knowing what else to do, I asked them to write about any kind of transgression- stolen trust, lost innocence, hurtful words, anything that came to them. Then I asked for volunteers to read. Once again, I felt as if I was the student and they, the teachers. From hidden pregnancies to bullying campmates, these twelve people wrote beautiful pieces under the pressure of only having twenty minutes to do so. We discussed each vignette, compared them to great works of literature, and I offered insight and assistance where needed. The workshop led itself, or more accurately, the students produced brilliant writing and input for one another. Just a few minutes into it, a knock on the door told me time was up. It’d been more than an hour and a half, and it was time to move to the next section.
I spent the next two hours consulting with the authors of two of the four manuscripts I’d been assigned. Both students seemed genuinely grateful for my input and appeared to think it was helpful. So far so good.
After another break to hit the pottie, it was time for me to read. For as well as day one had gone, now I really was screwed. I’d completely forgotten about this and had nothing prepared. No problem, you might think. Just pick a chapter. Well, I could, except that I had seventy-five minutes to read, answer questions and sign books. That translated to reading for forty minutes. I’m a slow reader, but even I wouldn’t take forty minutes to read one chapter.
I peed super fast and had a few minutes. I opened my computer, called upon my beloved search button and tried to recall one or two words from favorite chapters. I chose three chapters that were both (in my mind, anyway) moving and meaningful. Great! Plan set… Right up until Professor Ready read the email he’d written to me after he’d finished NIGHT BLINDNESS. He referenced a chapter as being particularly well done, so the class wanted to hear it. Um, er, only one problem. The scene takes place between best friends reminiscing about their naughty teenage years.
Okay- here it goes. Let’s hope these people are not modest and don’t mind hearing about the ways these young women kept themselves entertained.
I read four chapters, including the scandalous restaurant scene. No one gasped with shock or hid their embarrassed faces. I should have known that they’re all grown-ups and this probably wasn’t the first time they’d heard these words. Once again, time went quickly and before I knew it, an hour and a half had passed and it was time to wrap up for the night.
Professor Ready asked me to join him for dinner an hour later. I’d sweated through my clothes, so I was psyched to have the time to go back to the hotel, shower and change. Being a compulsive over-packer saved me from trying to make a scratchy, white towel look fashionable.
The next day brought another workshop and two more consults. Feeling a lot more relaxed, I didn’t leave dripping sweat and was spared having to wear pajamas for the drive home.
Professor Ready told me he has twelve published Drew Alum to choose from to be instructors at the Sentences Workshop. So who knows if or when I’ll be invited back. Even if this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it was well worth it. I maintain that I learned more from the students than they learned from me. While that was probably not a bonus for them or Professor Ready’s intent, I am grateful to have had the experience.
I signed up for your blogs a while ago & have been missing them all summer. You are hilarious and delightful. I’m sure those students loved you.
The way you held your workshops is refreshing. You are the mentor to allow your “students” to teach one another and you. Full participation by everyone instead of teacher to student lecture. I wish I had been there.